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UAB, Western Kentucky picks in C-USA

By Bruce Marshall  () 

The favorites

UAB and Western Kentucky

The best-kept secret in college football continues to campaign anonymously in Birmingham, where Bill Clark has quietly won 34 games in four seasons coaching UAB. That’s not a usual 34 wins, however, as the Blazers took off 2015 and ’16 when they temporarily shut down the program. Clark was kept on board through the shutdown and proved his value when the Blazers were even better when they returned in 2017. Having spent all of his coaching career in the vicinity, Clark is in no hurry to leave, continuing as the best bargain in college football since Sonny Lubick propped up Colorado State in the ’90s and stuck around for more than a decade. With 19 starters back in the fold, including all-time leading rusher Spencer Brown, a third straight conference title game as the West champ would be no surprise.  Meanwhile, after hitting the jackpot with recent coaches such as Willie Taggart and Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky appears to have hit paydirt again with second-year coach Tyson Helton, more boisterous than brother Clay at USC. Helton revived the Hilltoppers a year ago, culminating in a First Responder Bowl win over Western Michigan. Expect more of the same from WKU, with a rock-ribbed defense that ranked 22nd nationally in scoring and returns almost all of its starters, all part of the 17 seniors scheduled to start this fall. Unlike Clark at UAB, however, no one expects Helton to stick around Bowling Green for the long haul. Many think Helton will ride off to greener pastures, alongside his many seniors, at the end of the season.

 

Live dog

Louisiana Tech 

It’s hard to call a team off a 10-win season an underdog. But in the literal and figurative sense, Louisiana Tech is a formidable underdog for Skip Holtz. The coach has found a home off the beaten track in Ruston, with a remarkable streak of six bowl wins on his watch. As for the underdog thing, well, Holtz and his Bulldogs are 19-8-1 getting points since he arrived in 2014. The dynamics might change in the fall after the graduation of decorated QB J’Mar Smith, who won his last 10 games. Concern is that heir-apparent Aaron Allen looked decidedly uncomfortable in two starts when Smith was hurt in November. Five of the top six receiving targets remain in the fold, and senior RB Justin Henderson burst on the scene with 1,062 rushing yards in 2019. Concern exists on the defensive side, with only two starters back from a platoon that allowed under 22 ppg a year ago. The fact that Holtz is rebuilding so much of his roster has downgraded Tech in oddsmakers’ eyes, all the way to an underdog role. But the Bulldogs have done so much winning since Holtz arrived, with 56 wins since 2014, that we refuse to overlook Lou’s son. 

 

Dead money

UTEP

 

You couldn’t fit all the dead money in C-USA on a Brink’s truck. But UTEP has been particularly adept at inadequacy, and third-year coach Dana Dimel, who led Wyoming and Houston a generation ago, spent almost 20 years on different Bill Snyder staffs at Kansas State. He must be wondering why he has put himself through so much torture this late in his career, winning just twice in 24 tries across his first two seasons at UTEP. Would you believe that that win percentage is an improvement from the 2017 team he inherited, which produced a big doughnut in a 12-game season? The Miners hit a unique parlay last season, finishing 119th nationally in both scoring and scoring defense, but that’s nothing to brag about. Thus, perhaps the return of only seven starters is a good thing. But neither QB candidate has much experience, and Dimel will rely heavily on juco imports to fortify the defense. The Miners could improve and still be bad, as not even the oddsmakers have adjusted quickly enough: UTEP has covered only 10 of 36 games in the last three seasons, and a mere three of its last 17 at the Sun Bowl. Any takers?

 

Big games on the board

 

 

UAB at Miami, Sept. 10: While UAB has fared quite well under Bill Clark in Conference USA, the Blazers have been careful about their non-conference slate, usually limiting serious exposure to one Power 5 payday later in the season. This year UAB gets a Power 5 adventure to Miami, which was on the Blazers’ slate even before the COVID-19-related schedule adjustments. With almost every starter returning from last year’s 9-5 New Orleans Bowl entry, this will be the only barometer of how UAB stacks up vs. top-flight opposition in 2020. 

 

Louisiana Tech at Baylor, Sept. 12: This has been the kind of spot where Skip Holtz and Tech have offered plenty of value in recent years, with an 18-6 spread mark as road dogs since he arrived in 2014.  Suspicion is that heavy graduation losses, including longtime QB J’Mar Smith, foretell a downgrade, but Baylor experienced heavy personnel losses after last year, too, including coach Matt Rhule moving to the NFL. And remember, the last time we saw Holtz against a Power 5 foe, his Bulldogs blanked Miami 14-0 in last year’s Independence Bowl. If nothing else, we’ll get an early idea if Holtz has another ornery Tech team on his hands.  

 

Marshall at Western Kentucky, Oct. 10: Pole position in the East is likely to be at stake at L.T. Smith Stadium in what has turned into the most exciting rivalry in the conference. Only 13 total points have separated these squads the last three years, including a pair of pulsating three-point Thundering Herd wins the last two meetings. Might Marshall be better off after the late bolt from the program by erratic junior QB Isaiah Green? In the opening-week rout of Eastern Kentucky, redshirt freshman Grant Wells looked more than serviceable, tossing for 307 yards and four TDs in the 59-0 romp.  

 

Florida Atlantic at Florida International, Nov. 13: The “Shula Bowl” is the one, honest-to-goodness rivalry in C-USA that is likely to endure. Even with Butch Davis propping up FIU the last few years, recent meetings have been dominated by FAU, as Lane Kiffin seemed to take particular delight in destroying his local Miami-area rival. Kiffin, however, is gone to Ole Miss, so if Davis wants his revenge, he’ll have to get it against Willie Taggart, who should find the Boca Raton locale more to his liking than the bright spotlight that wore him down at Florida State.

 

EAST (in predicted order of finish)

 

Western Kentucky

 

Though not too reminiscent of his more mild-mannered brother Clay, the coach at USC, Tyson Helton’s in-your-face style proved just what the Hilltoppers needed a year ago after the program had declined. Helton, whose career was spent as a creative offensive assistant before his head-coaching debut last year, actually brought defense to Conference USA as Western Kentucky was the top scoring defense in the league at only 20 ppg. Watch tackle-machine LB Kyle Bailey, one of C-USA’s top stoppers last autumn with 109 tackles. Prospects are more clouded on offense, though Helton dipped into the transfer portal to find ex-Maryland QB Tyrrell Pigrome, who performed with some flair in seven starts for the Terps and brings more mobility than predecessor Ty Storey. It’s Pigrome’s offense now, with balance provided by RB Gaej Walker, off a 1,208-yard campaign in 2019. They’re complemented by a veteran forward wall with four returning starters. 

 

Marshall

 

Only once in the last seven seasons has Doc Holliday’s Marshall team missed a bowl game, and the most consistent recent entry in C-USA expects to be formidable again. Holliday, whose recruiting formula includes a pipeline into Florida and providing plenty of second chances for numerous partial and academic non-qualifiers, runs more of a risk than many of his counterparts of the personnel failing to blend. But more often than not, Holliday has cobbled together formidable squads. The offense has evolved into more of a run-first attack since Tim Cramsey was handed the OC role a couple of years ago. Punishing junior RB Brenden Knox (1,387 yards rushing in 2019) was the prime beneficiary last year as MVP of the conference, and the Herd might actually benefit from erratic junior QB Isaiah Green leaving the program, with redshirt freshman Grant Wells looking very comfortable at the controls in the opening romp past outmanned Eastern Kentucky. The defense, under former Charlotte coach Brad Lambert, returns its best pass rusher in DE Darius Hodge and most of the secondary, and it will be fortified with several juco additions. Always among the most athletic C-USA entries, another competitive Marshall team seems almost a foregone conclusion. But be cautious of the Herd being given too much respect by the oddsmakers: Marshall has covered only eight of its last 25 since early 2018.  

 

 

Charlotte

 

Bowl? Did you say bowl? As it relates to Charlotte, yes, indeed, a first for the 49ers as an FBS member Dec. 20 in the Bahamas. The result, a 31-9 loss to Buffalo, was nothing to remember. But it marked quite a debut year for 35-year-old coach Will Healy, obviously unafraid of challenges after quickly rebuilding a moribund Austin Peay program before moving to the 49ers. Healy’s spread option scored nearly 30 ppg a year ago and returns several key components, including dynamic junior QB Chris Reynolds, who passed for almost 2,600 yards and ran for nearly 800 more as the perfect trigger man for the Healy offense. Reynolds won’t have the diversion of RB Benny LeMay, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2019, though it’s hoped that Northern Illinois transfer Tre Harbison (1,021 yards rushing in 2019) can pick up some of the slack. Healy’s serviceable defense was also rarely overmatched vs. C-USA opposition and ranked in the top half of total defense numbers nationally. No longer a pushover, Charlotte figures to stay relevant as long as Healy sticks around to pull the levers.

 

Florida International

 

Butch Davis has brought stability to the Golden Panthers, qualifying for bowls in all three seasons on his watch. FIU barely got there a year ago after a 6-6 regular-season mark before losing to Arkansas State in the Camellia Bowl. And now the team must replace decorated QB James Morgan, who has moved on to the NFL’s Jets. The race to replace Morgan became more interesting when Maryland transfer Max Bortenschlager showed up via the transfer portal, likely battling with skittish junior holdover Kaylan Wiggins, a more accomplished runner than passer. After considerable graduation losses, we’ll find out if Davis has really upgraded the recruiting, as many of his additions will fill gaps, including eight departed starters on offense. But Davis, 68, has clearly proven he can still coach and win in this league. So if one of the QBs can deliver, the Golden Panthers should keep flying at their recent altitude. 

 

Florida Atlantic

 

Maybe this will prove a better fit for coach Willie Taggart, working on his third job in the state over the last four years after stops at South Florida and Florida State, with a one-year detour to Oregon. Coaches are rarely that nomadic, but many in the region expect Taggart to settle with the Owls after Lane Kiffin made it just a three-season stopover. Already, Taggart might have scored a coup by persuading his former defensive coordinator at Oregon and onetime South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt to handle the stop unit. With only four returning starters and a complete rebuild required on the defensive line, Leavitt has his work cut out for him as he implements his preferred 3-4 looks. But trouble lurks on offense and in particular at QB, where holdover Chris Robison, in and out of trouble off the field in the past, was dismissed in the summer by Taggart. Former Indiana QB Nick Tronti looks like the heir apparent, and Taggart was busy adding receiving targets from the transfer portal, including WRs Aaron Young from Duke and T.J. Chase from Clemson plus TE Michael Irvin Jr. from Miami. Until the QB situation sorts out, it’s difficult not to imagine Taggart’s first edition of the Owls falling from the 11-3 team Kiffin left behind. 

 

Middle Tennessee

 

It might be fair to ask if this is a program in decline, as the Blue Raiders missed a bowl for the first time in five years and some regional observers wonder if coach Rick Stockstill, entering his 15th season, might have squeezed all he can out of the program. The problems a season ago were mostly on defense, where MTSU ranked 114th overall but was even worse in pressuring passers, standing a ghastly 130th in sack rate. Veteran defensive coordinator Scott Shafer, a former Syracuse head coach, has to figure out a remedy quickly or another season might be ready to go down the drain. The offense should be functional behind junior QB Asher O’Hara, who threw 20 TD passes and just eight picks in 2019. And it is hoped a playmaker or two can emerge, perhaps RB transfers Martell Pettaway from West Virginia or Amir Rasul from Florida State. But this does not look to be one of Stockstill’s better Murfreesboro editions.

 

WEST

 

 

UAB

 

We’ve already had a look at UAB, which opened early against Central Arkansas and won an unexpected 45-35 shootout. The final score flatters UCA, which was lapped midway through the fourth quarter, trailing 45-21 before adding two late TDs as window dressing. So we’ll refrain from knocking the Blazers’ defense, especially with practically every starter returning from last year’s nine-win New Orleans Bowl qualifier that ranked eighth in total defense nationally. We’re more impressed that last year’s stop unit hardly regressed from the 11-win team of 2018, even with eight starters needing to be replaced. It’s important to rate the Blazers in relative terms. Against C-USA foes, coach Bill Clark’s strategy of defense and conservative offense has produced a 26-14-1 spread mark the last three seasons. But the offense has mostly struggled, so there is hope that 10 returning starters will translate into a more polished show. This will likely be led by QB Tyler Johnson III, who has flashed upside the last couple of years, and the runners, led by bullish Spencer Brown, who rumbled for 233 yards against Central Arkansas. Tougher tests await, including Sept. 10 at Miami and several C-USA teams, but it was a good start. And don’t forget the Blazers now have 19 straight wins at venerable Legion Field, hosting UAB for the last season before a new on-campus stadium opens next year.

 

Louisiana Tech

 

Thanks to graduation losses, Louisiana Tech is flying a bit more under the radar than usual, but we would still suggest underestimating Skip Holtz at your own risk. Holtz has solidified the program with bowl wins in six straight years since arriving in 2014. Still, this looks like more of a challenge than usual in Ruston, with the defense in need of a nearly complete rebuild and a new QB still to emerge after the graduation of three-year starter J’Mar Smith. Aaron Allen likely gets the first shot but hardly impressed in a couple of emergency starts last November when Smith was out, producing little offense in losses to Marshall and UAB. But 100-yard rusher Justin Henderson is a great complementary piece in the backfield, and plenty of established receiving targets return, including all-name wideout Smoke Harris, who doubles as a kick returner. Still, with nine of last year’s top dozen tacklers having moved on, Holtz and DC David Blackwell need a quick fix, especially in a secondary with no returning starters. However, Holtz has never had a losing point-spread record in Ruston and has been dynamite in the dog role (19-8-1), so don’t dismiss these guys.

 

Southern Miss

 

The last remaining original C-USA member, Southern Mississippi has been a trouper over the years. It usually contends for league titles and qualifies for bowls, which it has done four times in the last five seasons as coach Jay Hopson has delivered winning records all four years on the job. But a red flag or two might be flying in Hattiesburg after the Golden Eagles were dumped 32-21 by expected Sun Belt also-ran South Alabama in the opener. Against a Jaguars offense that ranked 121st in scoring last year, Southern Miss leaked all over the field, conceding a whopping 526 yards and making South Alabama QB Desmond Trotter look like an All-American. Not good, but is it an aberration for a unit that ranked in the top third nationally in total defense and returns seven starters? Hopson is also on his third OC in as many years after stealing Matt Kubik from Louisiana-Monroe. His first job will be to cut down the errors from slinging QB Jack Abraham, who tossed 15 picks a year ago as USM sported a miserable -11 turnover margin, 121st in the country. Moreover, a legit big-play threat needs to emerge after coast-to-coast WR Quez Watkins left early for the draft. But after having had an early chance to see the Golden Eagles, we suspect they’re at best still on the same slightly above-average treadmill, which also might be the ceiling for the program under Hopson.  

 

North Texas

 

It wasn’t long ago that Seth Littrell was on every list for coaching openings, especially after the 2018 Mean Green broke quickly from the gate. A spread devotee and disciple of Larry Fedora from his days on the North Carolina staff, Littrell looked bound for bigger and better things, which for a while in 2018 seemed the Texas Tech job. In the meantime, Littrell was extended through 2023. But since that rousing 4-0 start two years ago, Littrell has won only nine of 21 games, and North Texas backers have another reason to fume as the Mean Green have dropped an astounding 17 of their last 21 vs. the number. Sensing things were heading in the wrong direction, Littrell dismissed both coordinators and plans to call the plays himself. Littrell might be a year late, as graduated QB Mason Fine left as the NCAA’s active passing leader with more than 12,000 career yards through the air. It is expected that sophomore Austin Aune, after six years in minor-league baseball, will get the first crack at replacing Fine, but he’ll be working behind a line that needs to replace five of its top seven contributors. Several skill-position components, including prolific WR Jaelon Darden (76 catches in 2019), remain in the fold. Resisting the urge to look for quick fixes on the recruiting trail, Littrell has stayed the course with mostly freshman recruits and looks for last year’s redshirts to step in and make early contributions, especially for new defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, over from Kansas. This is an important season for Littrell to stay on the radar for an upcoming Power 5 opening. But unless recent trends improve, he might have to start worrying about his future in Denton.  

 

UTSA

 

The great Frank Wilson experiment has ended at the Alamodome after Texas-San Antonio could do no better than 4-8 a season ago. The expected flow of talent from Wilson’s connections during his days at LSU never translated to the Roadrunners. Enter another SEC assistant, this time Jeff Traylor from Arkansas, to breathe life into the sleeping giant of C-USA, with its big stadium and large, football-mad city ready to embrace the still-nascent program. Traylor knows the territory from his time as a wildly successful high school coach in the state, and he got an early bonus when New Mexico State grad transfer QB Josh Adkins picked the Roadrunners out of the transfer portal. Adkins, a two-year starter in Las Cruces, adds depth to a position with Frank Harris and Lowell Narcisse still in the fold after having started games in the past. The program has some weapons, including all-name RB Sincere McCormick, who rushed for nearly 1,000 yards a year ago, while sophomore wideout Zakhari Franklin showed he could get deep late last season. Veteran coordinator Tyrone Nix will shift the UTSA defense from a 4-2-5 base to his preferred 3-3-5 looks. The cupboard isn’t completely bare at the Alamodome, and if Traylor can find an answer at QB, UTSA might be able to exceed last year’s four wins. But it won’t be by much.

 

Rice

 

We still wonder about the wisdom of hiring David Shaw disciple Mike Bloomgren in 2018. The Stanford power-run offense always seemed an odd fit at Rice and unsuited to the type of personnel the Owls were recruiting in recent years. The best fit might have been the man Rice fired, David Bailiff. His offenses were based more on speed and deception and got the Owls to three straight bowls, quite an accomplishment at an outpost that had gone 45 years without a bowl invite. Potential encouragement comes in the form of a three-game win streak to close 2019 after opening 0-9, but we are not sure that Bloomgren’s strategy of slowing the pace to a crawl can help if the Owls can’t run the ball better than the 110th rank achieved last fall. In addition, no one from a slew of candidates including TCU transfer Mike Collins had secured the QB’s job. Rice hopes a defense returning 10 starters could be a strength, and if it is, maybe Bloomgren can risk opening up the offense, not having to keep the defense off the field as much as before. But until evidence shows that Bloomgren’s offensive philosophy can work at this locale, the Bailiff years will look much better in retrospect to Owls backers.

 

UTEP

 

And then there’s UTEP, which enters 2020 having lost 34 of its last 36 games, prompting locals to avoid the Sun Bowl and concentrate on more interesting things to do in the Rio Grande Valley, like the simulcast race card at nearby Sunland Park or just going out for a nice meal. As coach Dana Dimel enters his third year, he’d like to find something UTEP does well, but it’s been elusive. The offense has consistently ranked among the nation’s worst, and with no experience at QB, it’s hard to see the Miners outscoring many foes, especially if RB Quardraiz Wadley can’t avoid the injury bug that has wrecked his recent campaigns. Meanwhile, Dimel has hit the juco ranks hard in hopes of adding depth and maybe even a playmaker or two on defense. With only seven starters back and a mere 10-26 spread mark alongside its straight-up woes the last three years, there’s not much good to say about UTEP.

 

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